Not too long ago, Shaheed Salmon was making thumping defensive stops as an All-State linebacker all over the gridiron of John Benedetto Stadium at Land O’ Lakes High School.
He’s still doing the same — now, as a professional football player.
The 2014 Land O’ Lakes High graduate is a backup linebacker in the American Alliance of Football’s (AAF) Birmingham Iron franchise.
The league is about the closest level to the NFL as you can get.
It features numerous NFL veteran players and coaches, plus dozens of big names from the college football ranks.
Salmon’s team alone includes one of the league’s most recognizable faces — running back Trent Richardson, a former NFL first round pick and two-time BCS National Champion and All-American at the University of Alabama.
“The competition — it’s great,” Salmon said in a recent interview with The Laker/Lutz News. “You look to your left and you’re playing with someone who played at Alabama, at the highest level, even in the NFL.”
The AAF launched this year by television producer Charlie Ebersol and Hall of Fame NFL general manager Bill Polian.
The eight-team, 10-game season league is an unofficial complement to the NFL by showcasing developing talent.
Play began in February, with games broadcast on CBS, CBS Sports Network, NFL Network and other properties.
Salmon played collegiately at Division I FCS Samford (Homewood, Alabama), where he developed into an All-Conference standout as one of the nation’s most productive tacklers.
Post-college, the 6-foot-2, 227-pound Salmon signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in May.
He was cut three months later after suffering an ankle injury.
Salmon admittedly was unsure what the future held for his football career, as he worked to rehab his injury and get back into playing shape.
“There was definitely a week or two I was kind of confused of what I was going to do next with my path,” Salmon said.
Salmon said he considered entering the Canadian Football League, but “luckily I got a contract to come to the Alliance.”
Salmon made the 52-man Iron squad following a league-wide training camp back in January.
Salmon has, like other AAF players, a non-guaranteed contract worth $250,000 over three years, with additional bonuses tied to performance, statistics and fan engagement.
While not NFL money, it’s still a good chunk of change by most standards.
Moreover, Salmon gets to play in a city that’s just a stone’s throw away from his old college stomping grounds.
“You know, I feel real comfortable here in the 205 (area code),” Salmon said, “because I look at the fans and I see a lot of familiar faces, just coming to support me and stuff, so it’s really neat to be back in Birmingham.”
He’s quickly made a name for himself as a pro.
Salmon received some national attention when he made a pivotal play in the Iron’s Week 2, 12-9 win over the Salt Lake City Stallions on Feb. 16.
In a nationally televised broadcast on TNT, Salmon recovered a fumble — forced by teammate Jamar Summers on a punt return — in the end zone near the end of the third quarter, shifting momentum the Iron’s way as it fought back from a deficit.
Recognition followed on national television, sports websites and social media.
Salmon remains humble about the moment.
“I was just grateful for the touchdown. Jamar made an excellent play, and I just kind of did my job and I was at the right place at the right time,” he said.
Besides the fumble recovery for touchdown, Salmon has one assisted tackle through three games, playing mainly in a reserve role.
Like others in the AAF, Salmon dreams of getting to the NFL someday.
The AAF is regarded as a farm system of sorts for the NFL.
In fact, the league has an “NFL out” written into its player contracts, allowing players in the league to sign with an NFL team if given the opportunity.
“That’s everyone’s goal in this league; everyone’s trying to get back to the NFL,” Salmon said.
Salmon acknowledged that widespread goal brings an added layer of competitiveness and intensity to the startup league.
He explained: “Everyone that’s in this league was pretty much told no (by NFL teams), so it kind of makes them hungry, so that everyone’s a competitor.”
Salmon’s more immediate target, however, isn’t on the NFL.
Instead, it’s striving to do the best he can for the Iron.
“I’m just trying to perfect myself in this defense that we’re playing in,” he said. “I’m just focused right now on this team.”
Meantime, Salmon reflects fondly on his days at Land O’ Lakes.
He lettered in football all four years, collecting 261 career tackles and 20.5 sacks, including 117 stops as a senior in 2013.
The pro footballer said his favorite year as a Gator was as a wide-eyed freshman on varsity in 2010.
(That team finished 9-2, but later had all its wins forfeited after being found guilty of recruiting violations by the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA).)
“I was on varsity, so it was just an exciting feeling (as a freshman),” Salmon said. “We were pretty good, too, so I just soaked up all the knowledge I could from the older guys and stuff, so that experience was pretty cool.”
Salmon can next be seen in action March 9, when the Iron hosts the Orlando Apollos. Game start is scheduled for 2 p.m., ET on B/R Live. The game can be streamed online at Live.bleacherreport.com.
Published March 6, 2019